How to Praise Your Kids the Right Way Without Spoiling Them in the Process

How to Praise Your Kids the Right Way Without Ending Up Spoiling ThemYou’re a good parent. You want to help your kids grow up to be happy and successful. So, when you notice them doing something right, you jump in with praise and encouragement.

“Good job!”

“That’s brilliant!”

“You’re awesome! Way to go!”

But is all that praise and encouragement doing what it’s supposed to? Is it sending the right message?

Turns out the answer is, yes and no.

You’ve got the first part right – as parents we are our children’s first and foremost cheerleaders. Our children need to hear encouragement from us to go on to have a healthy level of self-confidence and eventually a healthy self-esteem.

The key however, is to understand what kind of praise is appropriate in which situation.

Think of praise as water. It is like a life force that has the power to help a little acorn grow into a huge oak tree. It has the power to keep everything green and beautiful and growing. But, it also has the power to drown, rot or just mildew everything. And even a few drops of water can douse a spark that was about to kindle a warm fire. The key, like everything, is knowing when and how to use it correctly.

In today’s article, let’s focus on how to praise our kids the right way without ending up spoiling them. The goal is to help them blossom into their beautiful, full-potential selves filled with self-confidence and the incredible courage required to pursue their dreams.

The Background

We started this month with the question -

How can we make sure that we do not unintentionally undermine our children, subvert their effort, turn them off learning and limit their achievement?

The question was raised by eminent psychologist Dr. Dweck in the wonderful book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, which led us down the rabbit hole of exploring what every (great) parent should know about the mindset of success – and how we parents can cultivate the “growth” mindset in ourselves. While reading those articles is not necessary to get the most out of today’s article, they are very helpful for grasping the ideas more deeply… so if you haven’t read them yet, be sure to come back to them when time permits.

Today’s article takes our discussion a step further and looks at how we can help our kids cultivate a growth mindset through the use of appropriate praise and encouragement. We’ve looked at this briefly before from a high-level perspective in how to go from a nagging parent to a master motivator. Today, let’s get a slightly deeper understanding by focusing on a simple scenario and understanding the different responses we can have, and why some of these responses are appropriate while others are not when viewed from the mindset perspective.

P.S.: Bring your own “growth” mindset to this post! Remember, this is not a judgement of whether something we do makes us a good or bad parent — it is an opportunity to find some of our deficiencies and grow into great parents!

OK, here we go -

Example Scenario: The Budding Artist

Consider this sample scenario adapted from the book Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. And try to really get into this scenario by picturing the image of your child as you read the scenario. Also feel free to replace “artist” with whatever is appropriate for your child.

How to Praise Your Kids the Right Way Without Ending Up Spoiling ThemLet’s say it’s one of those rare quiet weekends — for a change you have no other plans and you have the whole morning to yourselves. You ask your daughter what she wants to do, and she chooses to do some art. As you help her get set up with the paper, paint etc., you realize that she always seems to choose art over any other activity and she does seem to draw/paint well. You can’t help but wonder if she has a natural talent for it.

For quite some time after that, she is completely engrossed in her painting. Just as you notice how much uninterrupted time you’ve had to finish up your chores and marvel at how much effort she is putting into it, she walks up to you proudly displaying her painting and asks “Mom (or Dad), do you like my painting?

How would you respond if the painting is detailed and indeed a beautiful piece of art? On the other hand, what if she is holding up a mess and you have no clue what it is supposed to be (with younger kids) or something that is so obviously out of proportion that it looks rather grotesque (in case of older kids)?

Let’s inspect some sample responses -

How NOT to Praise (and Why)

  • Response 1:

    Irrespective of whether it is indeed a good painting or not, you put on your best smile and cheerfully say “Wow, great job!” with the best intention of encouraging your child.

    Why it’s not a good choice:

    This kind of praise is the least effective since it only provides a momentary good feeling due to the positive attention, but does not give any clue about why it is a “great job”.

    If we constantly use this kind of praise without moderation (and sadly, most of us do just that!), we may actually turn our kids into praise junkies who will do anything, even a very shabby job, to get their regular fix of a quick feel-good emotion brought on by a “great job”.

    Here’s another nasty side-effect. Sometimes I’m busy and don’t have the time to give appropriate attention to what my daughter is showing me and I tend to say “great job” as a quick stand-in for real encouragement. Sadly, this makes “great job” disintegrate into a saccharine version of “go away”. And like the story of the boy who cried “wolf”, later at times when I do mean it as genuine praise, it ends up sending completely wrong signals.

  • Response 2:

    Let’s say the painting is really good. You are very proud of your child and enthusiastically say “That’s beautiful! You are a natural artist!

    Why it’s not a good choice:

    This kind of praise is the birthplace of the fixed mindset that we so want to avoid.

    This statement contains an implicit message that natural talent is what makes someone/something great. From that the child may extrapolate that if she is seen putting in too much effort then she won’t be considered a “natural” any more. And since natural talent is what makes her special, she may not want to let go of that honor and may actually be dissuaded from putting in any effort into getting better. So whatever talent she may have gets stifled with no room to grow.

    Also, this is too much of a burden to place on a child – the child now has to live up to the expectation of being a great natural artist every time she paints. Of course we don’t mean it that way, but can you think of a harsher way to kill the joy of simply enjoying the creative process?

  • Response 3:

    Let’s say you have no idea what the painting is about or the painting is rather grotesque. But, you want to be an encouraging parent and so you enthusiastically say “That’s beautiful! You are a natural artist!” anyway.

    Why it’s not a good choice:

    At some level our kids know when their work is sub-par. Your daughter may have tried to do something and when it didn’t work out, she may have just scribbled over it in frustration. Or she may realize that her proportions are off and the painting looks no good. She comes to you for comfort. When she receives praise, it confuses her — there is no link between the praise she is receiving and her perception of the situation.

    While you may have good intentions, this does more harm than good because (a) it undermines the child’s ability to judge her own work and/or (b) it creates a sense of shame because mom/dad thinks so highly of her painting “skills” while deep down she worries that she sucks!

    Now let’s take this a step further. What if your child replies to you with “I hate it. It’s no good!”

    Now since we started out with “That’s beautiful!”, chances are we will continue with “Don’t say that! Of course it’s beautiful. I love it!”. Now it is a web of lies and we get tangled in it more and more. And unintentionally mess up our kids even more by insisting on not valuing their judgement and deepening their sense of frustration/shame.

So what are some of the alternate ways we could handle this situation?

The Better Way to Praise (and Why)

  • Response 1:Irrespective of whether it is indeed a good painting or not, you stop what you are doing (simmer the stove, or hit “save” and look away from your laptop etc.), pay real attention to what your child is showing you and say with a smile “You spent a lot of time working on that! What do we have here?

    Why it’s a good choice:

    This response is very different from the previous responses and we have not explicitly praised anything. Yet, to our kids this matters more than any overt praise we try to provide!

    In this response the action speaks volumes – your stopping what you are doing and paying real attention shows them that they matter and mom/dad cares about what they do. This lays a good foundation for healthy self-esteem as they grow up.

    Your words focus on the time they spent working on the painting — something they can be proud of irrespective of the end result! When the focus is on the effort, rather than the results, it lays the foundation for finding intrinsic joy in the activity rather than looking an external source of feel-good emotions.

    Finally, this opens up a great channel for communication. In the original example in the book that this scenario is adapted from, the child responds by saying that the picture is a forest where a witch lives and the parent continues to ask simple questions allowing the child to give the parent a little glimpse of her little inner world. Children make sense of the myriad things they face each day through conversations like these that may seem irrelevant or silly to us, but may actually help our kids resolve some of their internal conflicts by talking them through in a non-confrontational manner.

  • Response 2:

    Suppose it is a very good painting and you want to encourage your child by pointing it out, you could start the same as before ie., stop what you are doing, give your child complete attention and then say “I see you are getting better at painting each day! I remember there was a time you could barely draw a circle and look at you now! So, what do we have here?

    Why it’s a good choice:

    Again, as before you are giving the child full attention and sending the signal that they are worth it.

    However, here you are actually explicitly praising your child’s painting. The key difference from the fixed-mindset praise earlier is, your focus is not on any innate talent, but on the amount of effort your child has been putting into it. Talent is not within anybody’s control, effort is. So this kind of praise shows the child what they can do more of, if they want to get better at something that they think they are good at.

    Also, by being descriptive, you let the child know in easily quantifiable terms that they have made progress. Not to mention, that mom/dad has noticed!

    And of course, by asking a question in the end instead of leaving it a statement, you open it up for further discussion.

  • Response 3:

    Suppose the painting bombed. Again, after you stop what you are doing, you ask your child “You spent a lot of time working on that! What do we have here?” as before. Chances are the child will blurt out how much she tried to do something but it bombed or may lament that she sucks as painting etc.

    Acknowledge her judgement – “Painting faces can be tough… Lots of artists spend years practicing how to get the proportions and expressions just right”.

    Offer to help her improve – “Do you want to try art classes to get better at painting faces?” Or, if she is already taking classes “Why don’t we ask Miss Jess next week for some pointers on how to paint faces?” Or, “I think there are some online videos on techniques for painting faces – do you want me to help you look it up?”.

    Remember, your child may take you up on the offer, or may choose to continue sulking instead. Either are perfectly fine options. If your child was frustrated with the effort and needs to vent out steam, let them. Next week, we’ll specifically look at how to help kids overcome failure and setbacks (sign up here, if you’d haven’t already, to be notified by mail when the article comes out), but for now, focus on telling her how proud you are of her for the time and effort she put on it, irrespective of how it turned out. And in encouraging her to keep trying if it is indeed what she loves to do.

    Why it’s a good choice:

    This is the holy grail of positive reinforcement – something I was having trouble grasping when I wrote the article on positive reinforcement earlier. The key here is that we are slowly working on taking ourselves out of the equation, and letting our kids find intrinsic motivation in whatever they do. We are teaching them that they are just as talented as the work they are willing to put into it. We are teaching them that they can trust their judgement. We are teaching them that it is OK for things to not always work out the way they expect. We are showing them that their value, in our eyes, does not depend on the results they produce, but rather on who they are. And we care about the choices they make (in this case, the choice to work hard on that painting). And all the good stuff that goes into making a happy, wholesome, well-adjusted person!

Alright, we’ve got to get one last thing out of the way before we wind up for the week. If you are reading this blog, chances are, you are a work-in-progress just like me. Which means, your responses in any given situation will be all over the place. That’s OK. The key takeaway is to focus on effort rather than results, and slowly, over time, more and more of our responses will be like the final ones! Here’s to us to “growing” into great parents!

The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents

Alright, time to take stock. Think of a simple situation from your family from the recent past.

  • What was your praise like?
  • Did it send the subtle message that being naturally talented/gifted is what matters?
  • Or, did it send the message that effort is what matters?
  • Did you override or encourage your child’s own judgement in the matter?
  • If you found any shortfalls in your response, what other ways could you have responded instead, to encourage a growth mindset?

As always, there are no right or wrong answers. And of course, I would love for you to leave a comment and share some of your experiences :)

The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents

Through the rest of the week, let’s be a little more mindful of the way we praise our kids. It doesn’t take very long to get in the habit of praising the right way, once we are aware and make a conscious effort to choose our words carefully. Before long, we would have truly gone from being nagging parents to master motivators and what an amazing day that will be!

 

 

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Comments

  1. says

    Totally agree with everything you said! It’s a subtle change but it makes a big difference :-)
    P.S. Yeah, Sundays are the worst day on my blog which is why I stopped publishing that day. Monday and Tuesday morning are the best. Cheers.

    • Sumitha Bhandarkar says

      Whoa, thanks for sharing that, Shannon — really appreciate it! I thought Sunday’s might work better because most people spend the day with their families and can try some of these things as soon as they read, so it will stick better. But it looks like I am not the only one who does not read much on Sunday in the first place :) Knowing Mondays are one of the best days on your blog as well helps me rest easy with the decision to switch back to the old schedule – Thanks!

  2. Sri says

    Thanks Sumitha for your wonderful posts. This article aligns with what I read over the weekend(Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina). Book says “Praise the effort not IQ”.

    • Sumitha Bhandarkar says

      Hi Sri, I read the Brain Rules book long back and remember really loving it when I read it (though I’ve forgotten most of the details now!) I’m so glad this is in line with that book. Thank you so much for taking the time to share that with me!

        • Sumitha Bhandarkar says

          I haven’t read as many books as I’d like, Sri. Here are the ones that I’ve read and liked -

          - How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

          - Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting by Dr. Laura Markham

          - Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children by Thomas Gordon

          - Screamfree Parenting: The Revolutionary Approach to Raising Your Kids by Keeping Your Cool by Hal Edward Runkel

          - The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne
          (I actually haven’t read the Brain Rules book you mentioned – I got it confused for this one – *embarrassed smile* )

          - Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck
          (Not really a parenting book, but a great book for parents nevertheless)

          Do you have any suggestions for me?

          • sri says

            Thanks for sharing your list Sumitha. I will make time to read them. Brain rules was recently recommended to me and I am still reading it . Some others I have bookmarked but haven’t read are
            *Playful Parenting
            Lawrence J. Cohen

            *Redirecting Children’s Behavior
            Kathryn J. Kvols

            *Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think
            Bryan Caplan

            *10-Minute Life Lessons for Kids: 52 Fun and Simple Games and Activities to Teach Your Child Honesty, Trust, Love, and Other Important Values
            Jamie C. Miller

            *Character Building Day by Day: 180 Quick Read-Alouds for Elementary School and Home
            Anne D. Mather, Louise B. Weldon

            List of books is growing, need to make time :)

            • Sumitha Bhandarkar says

              Thanks! I have “playful parenting” on my to-read list. I hadn’t heard of the others and they look very interesting. We are headed for the library later this evening – will look for them – especially the last couple of them since we are all out of books for our bedtime reading!

            • Sumitha Bhandarkar says

              Hi Sri,

              Here is my parenting book list on amazon (please ignore the comments – they are for my tracking). There are some great books on this list — I hope I can read a few more before my daughter is all grown up :)
              http://amzn.com/w/1SU5H1XQ6KQ93

    • Sumitha Bhandarkar says

      Thanks Bernadette! That’s one more on my reading list – will bump it up the queue. Isn’t it ironic that there are so many wonderful books about how to be a better parent and yet, we parents are probably the ones with the least amount of time on our hands to read books? :)

  3. Bernadette says

    The growth and fixed mindset entry was a good one, Sumitha; something to think about for certain. I am definitely a fixed mindset in my own head yet try to encourage my daughter with a growth mindset. It’s better that way than the opposite but I think living that way oneself encourages children automatically. Something I will have to work on from here on out. No one likes a Debbie Downer. :)

    I do think some parents “overpraise” and I can see how and why you should perhaps choose your words carefully but I personally don’t believe kids remember being dumped on with praise rather than *not* being encouraged or supported. I’ve no doubt there are parents out there that do that and I myself have to be cautious with good grades–”Great job, well done!” is nice but we try to take a step back and let my wee one know that her hard work and effort, that extra study time was what made the grade, or in some cases, get her a higher mark than a previous test.

    Sometimes I hear parents when we are out and they berate and yell at their kids and to do so in public embarrasses the children. Don’t coddle them, by any means, but don’t knock them down, either. They do remember the things you did that really made them feel bad.

    Prior to when my little one started taking the bus, whenever I picked her up at school, there was a mom there who would loudly yell at one of her kids almost everyday. I would think, can’t you pull him aside and say something? You haven’t seen him all day and the first thing you do is yell. It is not my place to judge, however, but little minds are not just growing and need nurturing for physical growth but emotional growth as well!

    • Sumitha Bhandarkar says

      I find myself in the same boat, Bernadette! I had a fixed mindset before, but definitely want a growth mindset for my daughter and the only way to get her there is to go there myself first. It been an amazing experience — I find it a lot easier now to empathize with her rather than get annoyed, and to be supportive than critical since I am lot more aware and mindful of where I come from.

      I agree with you about the mom at the bus… to me parenting was an “auto-mode” thing at first. One of the side effects of being more deliberate and mindful about what I do is that I notice what other parents are doing a lot more as well – both the good and the bad. As you mentioned it is not our place to judge the parents whose choices we don’t agree with. On the other hand, if a parent does something really good, I try to compliment them about it — it’s amazing how many little “aha” moments I’ve had through these little chats. Besides, if the other parent is like me, I hope she/he will enjoy the acknowledgment from another parent that she/he is doing something right :)

  4. says

    Hi Sumitha. Found your blog from SPI and love how intense and passionate you are on the things you write about. I am not a parent but I do have two lovely young nieces and I spend lots of time with them. I strive to be A Fine Aunty… Does that work? :)

    Loving your tips about praising the kids — I never knew that. Great job on the blog and hope to connect with you.

    • Sumitha Bhandarkar says

      A Fine Aunty is a perfectly fine thing, Aqilah :) Nieces and nephews are great guinea pigs, I mean great little kids, to practice being patient with :) Thanks for your kind words about the blog!

  5. says

    Excellent post on a very important aspect of parenting, Sumitha. Loved the water analogy. So simple yet brilliant. I agree with the approach you’ve outlined. It’s something I came across a few years ago when I enrolled my daughter in Suzuki music lessons. Her teacher is extraordinarily gifted at offering just the right kind and degree of encouragement and getting even reluctant kids to work hard without realizing it. Dr. Suzuki’s ‘praise effort, not ability’ maxim is worth remembering in every parenting situation. I use the ‘remember how you couldn’t draw a circle a few years ago…’ approach when my daughter isn’t pleased with her art and it does seem to make a difference. Another thing I try is working on something along with her. For instance if she’s learning a new piano piece and finding it difficult, I try to play it myself (and since I have had no training, to say I struggle would be an understatement, but I try to make an effort to play at least one or two measures as well as I can). This gives her the opportunity to see how hard it is for me, when it is relatively easier for her since she’s been working on it for a while, so all she needs to do is put in a little more effort. When we work on art side by side, she often compares her work to mine and sometimes it upsets her that mine is ‘better’. (In a one-child household, parents are sometimes mistaken for siblings!!) I let her watch me sketch something challenging, with all the flaws and erasing, so she sees that I have my work cut out as well. Hopefully it shows her that everybody is at a different place in learning and all that matters is that we keep learning and trying.

    Love your blog, concept and writing. Good luck!

    • Sumitha Bhandarkar says

      Love the idea of trying a task with them and letting them see us struggle, Rupa. Very good point. Just yesterday, my daughter was playing with a new model building set and was starting to get very frustrated. I sat with her, and half way through the process, I realized we’d made mistake… we had to break almost the whole thing apart and start over, and now that you mention, I think she was much less inclined to get frustrated after that point!

      Thank you so much for sharing that insight!

  6. Bob says

    Sometimes children just want a little praise. All I hear coming from your examples is “you’re never good enough”

    • Sumitha Bhandarkar says

      Ouch. Sorry to hear it. That sure wasn’t the intent! Children do want praise and we should give it… just that we need to focus on the effort instead of the results.

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